What is a Chameleon?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

A chameleon is a type of color-changing lizard with distinctive head and facial ornamentation, independently-movable eyes with fused eyelids, and a long tongue with a bulbous, sticky muscle at the end. There are 160 species, found mostly in Africa and Madagascar, but also in small numbers in southern Europe, southern India, and Sri Lanka. A few isolated pockets of feral chameleons also exist in parts of California and Florida. These lizards are mostly arboreal, which means that they spend most of their time in trees.

There are 160 different species of chameleon.
There are 160 different species of chameleon.

One of the most frequent misconceptions about chameleons is that they change color to match their environment. This is not true, though the natural color of many species is closely matched to their environment anyway. Instead, they change color to reflect mood and ambient temperature. This is accomplished by chromotophores, special cells that can display a variety of pigments, including blue, pink, orange, red, black, green, yellow, and brown. The chameleon is among the most evolutionarily complex and intelligent of the color-changing animals. One of the only other relatively intelligent color-changing species is the Mimic Octopus.

A common misconception is that a chameleon will change color to adapt to their environment.
A common misconception is that a chameleon will change color to adapt to their environment.

Different species vary substantially in size and body structure, from the 1.1 in (2.8 cm) long Brookesia minima to the 27 in (68.5 cm) Furcifer oustaleti. Brookesia minima, also known as the Tiny Ground Chameleon, lives in Madagascar and is among the smallest known vertebrates, living on a diet of small insects. Whatever their size, these lizards all share a similar foot structure, whereby two of their toes are fused to create a three-toed, tong-like structure that is ideal for grasping branches.

The chameleon is a highly developed lizard predator, specializing in insects. For a reptile, it has excellent vision, capable of focusing in on the smallest insects from half a foot (15.24 cm) away. When prey is sighted, it can eject its tongue from its mouth in a fraction of a second, hitting the insect before it has a chance to fly away. It then swallows its prey whole, as it lacks teeth to chew. Lacking an outer and middle ear, the lizard is not thought to be able to hear, though it may be able to sense vibrations with a small inner ear structure.

Chameleons are popular as exotic pets and in natural history museums. The public's fascination with them has made one of them the most well-known lizard families.

Most of the 10 species of chameleon are found in Africa and Madagascar.
Most of the 10 species of chameleon are found in Africa and Madagascar.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


My uncle had a veiled chameleon as a pet. The veil was actually a protruding part of its head that helped it collect water, which would drain down to its mouth so that it could get a drink.

It didn't live very long, and that's probably my cousin's fault. My uncle told him that handling the chameleon would stress it out, but he kept picking it up and trying to play with it.

Even the pet store had warned them not to handle the chameleon too much. I'm not exactly sure why, but it's very bad for them. I suppose that stress can kill a chameleon the same way it can shave years off of a human's life.


I saw a chameleon in a cage at a pet store once. It was so colorful and unlike any lizard I had ever seen before!

I always thought that the lizards roaming about in my garage might be chameleons, but once I saw the real thing, I knew that they weren't. Chameleons look so exotic and nothing like the little lizards I see zipping through the cracks of the garage walls.


@healthy4life – It's unbelievable how widespread this myth is. I suppose that since the lizards do change color, confusion just set in about why.

I've even heard of something called chameleon diamonds. They are named this because they can change color according to where they are stored. So, the misconception even causes other things to be named after chameleons.

My grandmother had a chameleon diamond, and it did turn darker when she kept it in a box for months. After awhile out in the daylight, it turned lighter again. This was really cool, but it sadly had nothing to do with a real chameleon.


Well, this article has enlightened me to something I never knew. All my life, I've heard that chameleons changed color to match their surroundings. I believe that I even learned this in elementary school!

I'm amazed that the textbooks didn't do more research before passing this myth onto children. Then again, maybe the misinformation was just from my teacher and not from the book.


OK, this helped me out a lot. I had a six page project to do and after reading this, I was able to put a lot of information together and I'm only a ninth grade girl. Well, a smart one, at least, but anyway, whoever put this article together did a great job. Thank you.


The chameleon has feet that are more like a bird than a lizard. The feet are zygodactyl, which means that they have two pincher-like “fingers” sticking out toward the back and two more toward the front. This makes it very easy for the chameleon to hold on to twigs and branches.

They also have tails similar to that of a monkey. They can wrap them around things and hold on. Some of the chameleon’s’ tails don’t do that.

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